Monday, December 3, 2007


Email interview with Bernadette Chasteen, a GIS Specialist at RTI International in RTP, NC.

Can you give me some idea of your professional history with GIS (i.e. what is your current position, how long have you been in GIS, is there an area in which you specialize, etc…)?

My title at RTI is Research GIS Specialist. I have been working as a GIS specialist Since 1990, 17 years (good lord). My current area of specialty is GIS data management. I am the Database Administrator for our nationwide and global Spatial datasets at RTI.

Where did your interest in GIS originate?

My master’s degree is in Urban Planning. There are obvious uses for GIS in urban planning so I was introduced to the technology in graduate school. After I earned my degree I decided that I enjoyed using GIS technology to answer questions for various disciplines more than I was enjoying Urban Planning so I switched my focus.

Where does data come from that is displayed on GIS maps?

Anywhere we can get it! Mostly today we are using data that was originally entered from paper maps and later updated when satellite imagery showed us inaccuracies. Recently our group digitized data from a 1920 map showing influenza deaths in Chicago. Once in digital form, the data could be linked to information from hospital records, vital statistics and census to improve the accuracy and help researchers learn about how the disease spread and what factors influenced mortality outcomes.

What is the most interesting application of GIS technology that you have experienced personally? Know about.

I am most excited by GIS applications for epidemiology. One recent study found a significant link between breast and colon cancer and lack of exposure to sun during critical growing years.
Another study supports the theory that there is a link between Multiple Sclerosis and Lyme disease.

I’m learning about some ways in which GIS can be used to minimize impact of and/or respond to natural disasters like hurricanes or wild fires: Do you have any thoughts on GIS as a preparation/planning tool? As a response tool? In what role do you think it is most effective?

GIS is now essential for both preparation/planning and response. For example, there was so much devastation from Katrina that GPS played a critical role in helping responders re-map the area to show current conditions. For targeting response resources, you can’t do without GIS. If you type ‘disaster’ on the web site you will get 1,349 hits. If you Google ‘disaster gis’ you will get 1,950,000 hits.

I’m interested in how GIS was used recently in specific disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the San Bernardino wild fires. Do you have any insight into how GIS was or might have been used in these situations?

Jamie worked very hard to provide updated information about nursing homes and hospitals (places that could provide needed medical care) to the Katrina response team in Washington. After the response to the disaster, the information was compiled into an atlas for use in future emergency response.

From your perspective, what does the future of GIS look like? Looking ahead, do you have any thoughts on potential future applications for GIS? How might GIS be used to recognize or solve pressing issues?

The availability of mapping on the internet is democratizing GIS. Personally I think this is fantastic. The more people realize the power of GIS to solve problems, the better off our world will be. The accuracy of GIS data has improved as more people attempt to use spatial data for more applications. Better accuracy allows us to use spatial data to solve more problems. Spatial statistics is finally coming into its own. We have been able to say there appears to be a connection between various layers but with spatial statistics we can quantify such connections.

What are the biggest obstacles right now in realizing the full potential of GIS? (I’m not sure if this question makes complete sense… but it seems to me that GIS potential for recognizing and solving significant problems in the world is HUGE and that not many people are aware of the technology or how it is being used. Is there a reason that it has not been as widely or appreciated as I feel it should be?

It takes some training and understanding to apply the technology correctly to solve specific problems. This will always be an obstacle but the tools are getting easier and easier to use so who knows where this will take us. I think the generation of people who have grown up with the internet and digital mapping as a given will be much more inclined to think about solving problems spatially.

Any other thoughts that you would like to provide would be great… if there is an aspect of GIS that you are passionate about that I didn’t address or if you just really enjoy discussing the topic, please feel free...

You are definitely bitten by the GIS bug! Now you maybe understand why us GIS geeks like what we do so much. The other thing is that the technology has continued to evolve so that what I was doing 15 years ago is very different from what I do now. I have had to continue to learn and grow and I really enjoy the aspect of being able to apply the technology to different disciplines. This keeps me learning new things too. This is particularly true here at RTI.

I am honestly grateful for my career in GIS. I frequently get up from my desk and think “Damb, this is fun and I’m getting paid for it!”.

Saturday, December 1, 2007


Leo.... I sent my interview questions through email and was assured that I would have them answered before the weekend, but I have't gotten anything back yet. I hope I get a response soon! I'll post as soon as I do.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

New Progress

I'm feeling very confident with my newly found focus.

Today I contacted Bernadette Chasteen, a GIS expert at RTI International, and asked some general questions about GIS and disaster relief as well as submitted a list of interview questions for her review. I should have the interview completed before the weekend. But here's some very helpful information that I already received from her:

She forwarded me an email from ArcWatch, a monthly newsleter for GIS professionals that she subscribes to. In the email were links to various recent GIS applications, including the recent wild fires in CA. Here's a link to information on that: The technology involved in efforts to track and display elements of dozens of wildfires burning simultaneously is amazing. GIS professionals and technology were used at every command post on the ground and in various FEMA command centers to provide visual data on the current state and size of the fires themselves, the geographic location of each fire, and potential spread based on wind and other weather conditions. They even modeled the potential spread of smoke resulting from the fires. GIS was also used to show coordinates of different personnel working to fight the fires and to aid in coordination of the efforts (They showed closed roads v. those open for evacuations, locations of firefighting teams and equipment in relation to strategic locations around the fires. "...Agency personnel took advantage of the analysis and visualization capabilities to help federal, state, and local agencies collaborate, prioritize, and best utilize manpower and resources as well as monitor events on the ground in near real time." Satellite heat signature data was incorporated into the maps to show the hottest areas of the fires in real time (this could also probably aid efforts to track down the origination point of the fire). “Real-time weather (wind) was incorporated to provide an indication of what direction and at what speed the fire would travel. This information, when coupled with GIS layers that located homes and other developments in harm's way, provided fire officials with better information to make tactical and strategic decisions concerning public safety, resource allocation, evacuation needs, and additional equipment needed.” GIS also aided in identifying critical facilities and infrastructure on which to focus protection efforts, property and community damage assessments, selecting locations for relief centers, planning and carrying out evacuations, and developing recovery plans. “Specialists used GIS to analyze vegetation, slope, and other landscape features to help understand and potentially predict fire behavior in the event weather conditions worsened.” Wow! Imagine how disorganized efforts to fight these fires and protect people and property would have been without this technology!

Mrs. Chasteen also pointed me to a website for an organization which she is involved in that provides volunteer GIS services in disaster situations ( She elaborated on recent work with the Red Cross to place displaced New Orleans residents into homes immediately following the flooding caused by Katrina. Her efforts were to GeoCode addresses of people in our area who had volunteered to shelter Katrina victims. The addresses were added to a database that housed geographic information of “safe houses” around the country so that the Red Cross could find shelter for the families.

So, I’m getting some interesting stuff…. More later.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

New (old) Topic and New Direction

I think I've finally arrived at a direction for my project. I'm planning on exploring the application of GIS in emergency planning. I'll research various situations in the past in which GIS has proven useful and explore some ways that it may be applied in the future. In order to narrow it down some for the actual paper, I will probably pick one area like evacuation planning or something like that and go in depth about how GIS would be applied.

Here are some questions I will be exploring:
What is GIS?
How are maps created using GIS?
Where does the data come from?
What are some common applications of GIS?
How has GIS been used for emergency planning in the past (maybe a focus on natural disasters)?
Is GIS effective in planning/responding to emergencies like natural disasters?
What does the future of GIs look like in respect to emergency planning and response?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My original topic

So, all of the sudden after seeing some posters I'm feeling like I would be better served following through with my old topic, GIS and disease spread... how GIS can aid in minimizing serious disease outbreaks. Or would it even be too broad for my topic to be What is GIS and what are some common applications in the world today? I could see an interesting project from that.

I'm thinking this because of the posters that I viewed and thought were really good. I think the most important thing was focus, which I don't have in my current research. I'm interested in my topic and I'm finding the research interesting, but there's just so much of it from so many different angles that I'm having a difficult time finding a point to focus on and run with. The GOS topic is a little less interesting to me, but I don't have the focus issue. I really had a hard time following a couple of posters because I felt they lacked focus and I don't want people to feel that way about mine.

So, some of my questions would look like this:
What is GIS?
How is GIS commonly used in the world?
What additional problems may be addressed with GIS in the future?
What tools does a GIS specialist use?
Where does the data come from?

If I go the disease route: How can GIS be used to contain disease spread?

What do you think? Am I too late or is this doable?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Working on a Thesis Statement/Question

How about this: Does television viewing by young children affect learning and scholastic performance?

I'm interested in looking at this from different perspectives: How news media presents the issue, How experienced teachers view the question, and then finally what resent research shows.

What do you think? Can you think of any other perspectives I could use? I'm sure I can find a very very seasoned teacher who may be able to recall a time before TV, or at least before it was in every household in the country. Could that work as my professional interview?


Sunday, November 11, 2007

New Direction in Research

While working on my annotated bibliographies I thought of a good angle on my topic. Initially I wanted to stay away from content, but now I'm thinking that there's more to content than I initially thought. First I was most interested in the idea that the actual act of TV watching is detrimental to early childhood development, but the only support I could find for this position was not backed up by research. A lot of people feel this way but as far as I can tell it hasn't been proven.

So, then I thought about looking into a specific developmental theory (Piaget's on stages of intellectual development) and applying it to television. While I still may be able to do something with this, I'm finding it difficult to find relevant sources without sifting through tons of stuff.

Recently my research led me to differences in perception by age, gender, class, etc... and how that relates to differences in understanding of material presented through TV. One of the more interesting facts I found is that information presented very quickly in short snippets is much more entertaining than information presented coherently and at a slower rate. On the other hand, slow coherent presentations of information lead to much higher rates of absorption and retention of material than the faster, more entertaining version. It occurs to me that this leads to a conflict of interests for providers of television content; Is their goal to entertain or to educate? The content and presentation of the program should be very different based on the goal here. My instinct tells me that no matter how interested programming companies are in educating our youth, they are not interested enough to potentially lose money in the process. But in order to focus on education the shows would need to be made less interesting, less appealing to the audience. I think that the absence today of shows like Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and the prevalence of faster paced shows like Sesame Street or ... whatever else kids are watching these days (Cayden doesn't watch TV... so I don't know :-) backs up my instinctual feeling that education is low on the list of priorities for programmers of children's video material. If that's the case than content is a huge factor. If the content is universally contradictory to what is best for children at any given developmental stage then regardless of the content, it is bad for the child... right? Then maybe I can make an argument that the act of television watching is inherently bad for the child.

Thanks for your comment on my last post. Are you doing your dissertation on educating through video games? This idea would apply to that in the same way... in order to fully allow for optimal learning, the material would need to be presenting slowly and coherently. But that would make for a boring game to play! So if it's not optimal for learning than are children wasting time playing when they could be learning it more productively somewhere else?

Since I got into this topic late, I'm a feeling a little behind in developing a concrete topic and sticking with it, but at least I'm moving forward. The annotated biblio assignment is helping. So, what do you think about my progress and do you think this is a good tree to climb?